tv Maria Hinojosa One-on- One PBS August 21, 2011 8:30am-9:00am PDT
>> hinojosa: as an editor of rolling stone magazine, he introduced some of the most iconic musicians of our time-- from janis joplin and jim morrison to bob dylan and elton john-- rock and roll journalist ben fong-torres. i'm maria hinojosa; this is one on one. ben fong-torres, so you don't play a musical instrument, but you are an icon in rock and
roll. >> no! >> hinojosa: yes! >> i am not. >> hinojosa: rolling stone magazine made you famous. you were an editor there for well over a decade, and people will rember you as the guy who sent out that kid reporter in the movie almost famous to go get his story. >> that mean guy, yeah. >> hinojosa: that mean guy. >> that's me, mm-hmm. >> hinojosa: and i told you that i was going to do this, because as one journalist to another journalist, it's hard to kind of sum up, because you have interviewed every major rock and roll and pop musician and country musician that exists, i would day. okay. >> well, you're overstating it, but i'll take it. >> hinojosa: overstating a little bit. if you had to choose your like, top most-memorable interviews from this huge history, what would it be? what would it be? >> you know, maria, i have forgotten them all, actually. >> hinojosa: ( laughing ) every, single one! even elton john. >> mick? mick who? >> hinojosa: ( laughing ) well, you know; sum it up. >> yeah, it's a tough choice, but i would say that quite often, it was the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes on that builds to a story that makes it memorable for me. for example, one of my favorites
is ray charles, because at the time that i suggested the story, he was not really on the charts and getting the kind of acclaim he should've been. >> hinojosa: what year was this, ben? >> oh, this was back in the early 1970s. >> hinojosa: okay. >> and aretha's up there, and otis redding was a big star, and joe cocker-- a british guy who sounded like ray charles-- was on top of the charts and playing the fillmore auditorium, but not ray charles, except in tandem with aretha franklin one time. and i thought the man deserved more. he was one of the foundations of american music as we know it and love it. and so i just raised my hand and said, "ray charles is in town, let's do him." >> hinojosa: and was their immediate reaction kind of like, "hmm, ray charles..." >> "oh, tell us the story. what's going on with him?" rolling stone was always quite open-minded, and back then, it was not so much worrying about a person's popularity the way so many magazines are today. and so if you made your case, then you were sent out and got the story. >> hinojosa: oh, so it wasn't about a popular rock star. that wasn't... >> no. this was a man of history and a man of pride and a man of... who
deserved a lot more than he was getting at that time, and he knew it, too. i mean, he was... >> hinojosa: and in that interview, he actually revealed to you-- he talked about the fact that he was addicted to heroin. >> correct. >> hinojosa: he talked about the fact that he felt that he wasn't getting a lot of recognition, too. >> yes, yes. so we played on pretty much the reasons i had for the story, and by the time we got to know each other, it got to the point where, for the first time, he revealed details about his addiction to heroin and his kicking cold turkey in an institution. he wasn't that happy talking about it, but he felt like he was compelled to talk about it, and he felt comfortable doing that where he had not allowed downbeat and playboy magazines to ask details about those incidences. and so the story came off really well, won some awards, and i've always thought that it was mr. charles who deserved to win those prizes, because he was the one who revealed his story so eloquently. >> hinojosa: you also have an amazing moment with janis joplin, where she calls you... >> ( laughing ) >> hinojosa: ...she calls you on the phone. >> yeah. janis and rolling stone weren't
exactly friends, which is odd because she was a hometown gal in san francisco coming in from texas, and never got much good press in rolling stone, of all publications, and so... >> hinojosa: which sounds king of like you would say... i mean, i was too young at that point, but i would have thought that janis joplin would have been like, an icon for rolling stone magazine. >> sure, but there can be icons who do shows that don't rub the critic just the right way or put out an album that disappointed the person who happened to be assigned to that particular review, and that's what happened with janis. so things were not that great between the magazine and her, but she had broken up with big brother and the holding company, her first band in san francisco, and had gone on to some other ventures. and one night, out of the blue, she finds me, and i was doing some volunteer editing work at a bilingual paper in san francisco's chinatown. and i just went down there on wednesday nights-- on press night-- to help slap the paper together. >> hinojosa: and the phone rings, and it's... >> ...janis, yeah. the phone rings and the editor came along and says, "hey, ben, i think it's for you, because it's janis joplin... who
normally does not have much business with our newspaper east/west." and so i took the call, and she had apparently called the switchboard at rolling stone... >> hinojosa: oh, my gosh! >> ...and they said, "oh, we think ben is out in chinatown." it's like, past midnight. and so then the phone rings, and she's calling just to say, "hey, man, i'm feeling great. i've got this new band, i've got this new tattoo and this boyfriend, and i went to rio de janeiro, and man, stuff is wild down there..." >> hinojosa: and you're like, taking notes. >> and i just began taking notes, and then just wrote a little article out of it. the headne, i remember, was, "hey, janis is feeling great." >> hinojosa:w! >> that's how casual things were at rolling stone. you know, whatever we experienced would become the story, and the headline and the photos would reflect that. >> hinojosa: so you also spent some time with amazing... well, one-- michael jackson. >> yes. >> hinojosa: i want to talk about that... >> all right. >> hinojosa: ...because of the fact that he's passed. and then grateful dead, because we know that there are huge grateful dead fans out there. but michael jackson.
>> yes. >> hinojosa: how much time did you spend with him, and when you found out that he had passed, what did it symbolize for you as this rock and roll... in essence, you're a rock and roll historian. >> hmm. well, it went back to 1971. and what it was was a jackson five tour. and they were going home to gary, indiana, and they were playing a couple concerts around like, you know, lansing, michigan. i'm not quite sure now of the cities, but columbus, ohio, and also encino, california, where they lived. and so i was doing a story that basically trekked them going home, basically, and doing a concert. >> hinojosa: so you were literally hanging out with the jackson five and the whole family? >> hmm, certain scenes, backstage, when they were onstage. and then they had a family reunion dinner so i attended that and observed the dynamics of the family and the brothers and the sisters. and then saw them in concert with the opening act being the commodores-- that was interesting. and then interviewed each of them separately. >> hinojosa: but let me ask you, did you at that point, did you
realize that michael jackson could become this huge, international star? did you have a sense? >> oh, he already had a number of top ten hits. they were already quite big, and it was unquestionable that they were major stars. michael himself was a mega watt star. he was a brilliant performer. and this is... >> hinojosa: but he was a kid! >> he was only 13. >> hinojosa: he was a kid. >> he was only 13 years old when i met him, but he was-- and i described it in the story-- he was just so impressive. and not in a freakish way, but he was a kid who clearly loved the art form of performance and of singing, and had mastered it. the james brown spins and moves and the crooning and the blues kind of vocal style. he was so sharp and so driven to perfect his work that he already excelled in all of these different forms of music. it was just amazing. it was undeniable.
>> hinojosa: he was an incredibly hard worker. >> then five years ago, i meet them again. now they're the jacksons, they're away from motown, they're still working together-- the brothers, and... a slightly different lineup because jermaine had left and stayed at motown. and so i met him as an 18-year-old at our home in san francisco for a tv show. we decided to have a different location than the usual backstage or hotel room. and so they all emerged out of a long stretch limo on buchanan street in japantown in san francisco, and popped into our apartment-- dianne and mine-- and sat there for an interview for television. michael was extremely shy, a little awkward. i mean, he was kind of tall and gangly, wore a black sweater, white shirt, big afro, and... but whenever he sat down or when it was his turn to talk, he would talk quite earnestly and quite articulately-- unlike me-- and... >> hinojosa: ( laughing ) >> ...and said some very interesting things. >> hinojosa: you're doing good, you're doing good. but let me ask you this. you know, there is a sense that
these rock stars are, you know-- we all know this, they're larger than life. you know, they end up on magazine covers, huge concerts... you're with them in their most human moments. >> hmm, yes. >> hinojosa: what do you take away from that? i mean, how do you kind of tell young people, "look, don't get taken over by the whole brouhaha and the whole stardom and the... >> hmm. >> hinojosa: in the end, you're an artist and you're a human being, and you know, how you treat... i mean, what is it that you take away from it, because you've been with so many of these huge, iconic rock stars? >> well, at that moment, all i do is take away a story. i'm taking notes, meeting a deadline, moving on to the next thing. >> hinojosa: you're a working journalist. >> so i'm not there to advise them. i'm not their minister or their psychiatrist... >> hinojosa: but you're observing... >> yes. >> hinojosa: ...how they interact. >> right. and sometimes, the artist will say, "wow, man, this is like being with a shrink," you know, this interview. because you're probing them. they are revealing things that they would not talk to their own family members about sometimes. >> hinojosa: and you felt that you had pretty easy access to rock stars to get them... people
assume that there's kind of a wall that they put around themselves, but in fact, for you... >> there's a wall, but back then, rolling stone was quite often... it was really the only game in town on that level of being a serious chronicler of what was going on in rock and roll and pop music culture. and so artists really wanted to be in rolling stone, unlike today with all the competition from cable television and all different media platforms, other magazines, daily newspapers... everything is so pop-centric, whereas before the daily papers-- the mainstream media-- basically declined to be interested in what was going on there. and so they welcomed us; gave us a lot of access. today, for example, you're lucky to get 45 minutes with a superstar. back then, you road on their learjets or road the busses with linda ronstadt next to you for an entire three hour ride somewhere, and then backstage. >> hinojosa: because do you feel that today almost, now, in terms of like, music journalism, it's all controlled, contrived,
prepared, marketable, kind of... >> yes. right. in one word: yes. there are, of course, exceptions, and some magazines have more access. back then, rolling stone had access to pretty much everybody for as much time as we wanted. >> hinojosa: but anytime that you read about these guys, it feels like it's, you know, it's contrived. it doesn't feel like you're really living with... do you know what i'm saying? it doesn't feel like you're really living with these big, top musicians. >> right. you're popping in for a moment. you're getting a sliver of their life, and it's only the professional life that you're observing. whereas back then, as i say, riding in a bus with bonnie raitt and tom waits and john prine all hanging out and goofing around... >> hinojosa: don't drop any names or anything like that! >> ...and getting high. and i think diana ross was in there, too... >> hinojosa: really? >> no. but you couldn't help but really get to see them. they're there, they are really human beings just hanging out, and critiquing each other, and making fun of each other, and deciding to do a song spur of the moment, and you're there watching it.
it's... it is like almost famous. it was how it was with that band for that kid. >> hinojosa: one of the things that i find so interesting about you as an american journalist is the fact that you have also shared your own story. you wrote a memoire. it's called the rice room: from number t son to rock n' roll and within the asian community-- asian journalist association-- you are, again, an iconic figure, because you are an asian journalist who has "made it" to the big time. but there was a lot of time when you were a kid growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in this country when you didn't like a lot about where you were coming from, who you were... >> hmm. >> hinojosa: ...you know, you were working in your parent's chinese restaurant-- working all the time. >> sure. >> hinojosa: talk to me a little bit about that... that place that you have where you looked at your own culture... >> yes.
i've learned that that's a pretty common feeling... >> hinojosa: ...and you didn't necessarily like it. >> yeah, i think that's a common feeling that kids have-- kids of immigrant families, who come... who are being raised in america and want to be americans, and wanted to be part of what's going on; just to be accepted socially. there was no thinking about the mainstream or anything like that, it's just wanting to have friends-- somebody to stick with at the cafeteria. you know, the simplest things as a child-- to be able to play, to be invited to a party-- and the more you are different from what is accepted to be and what you see to be the mainstream in society, the more you feel like, "oh, wow, i have to work a little harder to be able to be sociable and social and accepted." and so on top of being chinese american, we also have the obligation with the family to work at the restaurant constantly, all hours. >> hinojosa: i love that part of your book where you were just like... >> no summer. >> hinojosa: you actually say... you say something like you were folding won tons and cutting
chicken to the songs of the rolling stones, the beatles, and petula clark? >> well, yes, right. yeah, to a certain extent, because doing those chores goes back to the mid-1950s. and so we're talking about doris day and eddie fisher and perry como-- listening to music and to baseball games. that's my second love, yes. >> hinojosa: okay, you're going to have to... you took me there, ben. >> i did. >> hinojosa: because now i'm going to have to ask you to impersonate one of those singers. >> ( laughing ) >> hinojosa: because you would listen to dean martin and elvis. >> this is becoming the benny and maria show. >> hinojosa: ( laughing ) >> donnie and marie. >> hinojosa: well, which one do you... >> elvis was my first musical hero, that's for sure. and then i spent the year in texas with my father, who had a restaurant in ventura... in amarillo, so i had a lot of free time, and so i was able to do what a lot of young american boys and maybe some girls, too, did-- standing in front of a mirror trying to do elvis from watching him on tv. >> hinojosa: oh, how cute! >> yeah, me-- a little chinese kid with a ukulele from the discount store! >> hinojosa: oh, my god! >> so i learned a song, and... yeah. and so i would do elvis-- "i beg
of you," or "treat me nice," or "ted bear," "don't be cruel." nowadays, i perform it... perform elvis in person in front of a live band every month in san francisco. >> hinojosa: you are just working like crazy. i mean, you could be, essentially, retired, taking it easy, putting your feet up... >> i wish, i wish. yeah, right. nope, instead i work, yeah. >> hinojosa: okay, will you sing dean martin for me, then? >> dan martin you want? oh, okay. >> hinojosa: let's do dean martin. >> oh, all right. something like "that's amoré" or "everybody loves somebody"? >> sure. "everybody..." >> ♪ everybody loves somebody sometimes where's my drink? ♪ everybody falls in love somehow. ♪ something in your questions just told me ♪ my sometime is now. there you are. >> hinojosa: ( laughing ) so for you, what did you do around this whole reality that your parents... you know, you were chinese american at home... >> yes. >> hinojosa: you were having a
hard time even communicating with your parents... >> right. >> hinojosa: ...because you were focused on speaking english, and they were not learning english because they were busy working. >> that's right. >> hinojosa: what did you do about this kind of dichotomy of "which one... am i chinese? am i american? am i chinese american? do my parents see me as that?" how did you kind of... >> yeah, there was no... intellectualizing it, that's for sure. it was just day to day life. this was just reality. >> hinojosa: well, was the united states, at that point, a welcoming country to a young chinese boy, or... >> we were in chinatown, and so that was kind of an enclave to a certain extent. we went to chinese school, you know? most of the students at lincoln elementary school were from chinatown. there was a mix, for sure. some of my best friends were japanese and african americans, but it was largely a chinese community, and therefore, you didn't really get that much of a sense of the outer society at that young age. and you know, how do you get through that?
you bond as siblings-- which i did-- and you do what parents expect of you, which is to work hard and study harder. you go to the additional chinese school, which again, divides you some more, because now you're hearing one dialect of cantonese at home with your parents and speak mainly that; you go to... >> hinojosa: because your parents came from a small village. >> yes, two different small villages in tianjin in china in guangzhou. and then you're learning a different of the more prominent dialect in chinese school. they're beginning to teach something called mandarin, by the way, on the side. that's three dialects of chinese, plus this newfangled language called english that we're supposed to get hold of, too. and so you're torn all these different ways. all you do is go with it. there's really no thinking about it. "gee, i'm not chinese; i'm not american;" no, there's none of that. you just live your day to day life until you get to the point where you say, "okay, this is what i'm interested in and i'm going to try to do it." and for me, in the early 1960s
wanting to be in media-- that was not something where i could aspire after a role model. there were no chinese americans doing broadcasting or newspaper or magazine work, so it was a pipe dream, for sure. >> hinojosa: and your parents actually... your parents... you like to say that it took them about 25 years to realize what it was that you were doing, because you... >> that's true. >> hinojosa: ...as far as they were concerned... >> something like a hippie magazine. something like a hippie newspaper. >> hinojosa: and that was... that was... >> no. >> hinojosa: that was not so good. >> no. it was not until the rice room was published in the early 1990s and i went and did a reading at a library branch that happened to be in chinatown-- oakland, so they could get there easily. and then they saw what was going on in terms of some... i wouldn't say "fans," but people who read the book or knew my work and showed up, and they asked for autographs, they took pictures. and so my mom got a... you know, i had been on tv a lot by that time and had a radio show that didn't connect with them.
it was seeing it in person and hearing from chinese friends of theirs or parents of people who knew what i did who would then tell them who i was. then they knew, but yeah. >> hinojosa: but you end up going back to china... >> yes. >> hinojosa: ...and then you end up kind of discovering your family's roots. >> right. i had not been back to the home village since i was about maybe five years old. i went back with my mom and my sister sarah... >> hinojosa: and i'm sure that there are some people who are saying, "okay, wait a second. so ben fong-torres goes back to his small village in southeastern china. hmm. so where does the 'torres' come from?" >> oh, yeah; that's right. >> hinojosa: okay? because you are ben fong-torres. >> yeah, it was a wild night in vegas, that's what it was! >> hinojosa: ( laughing ) that's what your dad... no, he wouldn't say that. >> the chinese hangover. well, my father, you... well, you know about this, and i think more and more people do understand now that there was the chinese exclusion act enacted in 1882 that pretty much banned the entry of chinese
people into the united states-- except for those who were already family of people who were native chinese americans who had been born here, who were already living here. so there was a lot of illegal activity for people to have to get into to come here. that is, to become paper sons and daughters and to fake your way in as the child of chinese american citizen. my father found a different way. as a teenager in china, he had been told that he could make more money going through the philippines to work, and so that's what he did. he moved to manila as a teenager and began to work and then send money home to his village in china. and then in manila, he learned that a way to get to america-- which was his goal-- was to maybe cross over as a philippino national. >> hinojosa: let me... let me stop you there. >> yes. >> hinojosa: why did your dad... so he's from this small southeastern village in china... >> yes. >> hinojosa: ...what made your
dad understand that his goal was united states? >> was america. oh, it was just common knowledge for people who... lived a life of poverty and want that there was this golden land; this golden mountain; this thing called america that some people had gone to and done well in, and could prosper and either raise a family or send money back to the family in china. and this became a pervasive goal among a lot of young men, particularly in china. and so my father's way was to-- through advice from friends-- buy a piece of paper that made him ricardo torres. and so... >> hinojosa: okay, wait. so your dad's... his birth name... >> ...is fong kwok seung. fong kwok seung. >> hinojosa: and he became... >> ricardo torres. lucy? >> hinojosa: ( laughing ) >> and so he... and he, from his time in the philippines, he learned enough phrases to pass
as a philippino national, and so he came to seattle first, and then to san francisco, and then to oakland. >> hinojosa: do you sometimes... because i know, everybody is like "fong-torres. what is up with ben fong-torres?" i mean, your dad could have... he could have just decided to be fong... >> yes, he could have. >> hinojosa: ...but he had taken this "torres"... >> mm-hmm. >> hinojosa: ...and he said, "i'm going to keep it in my name." >> well, no, he didn't say any of that stuff, but at the hospital when the first child was born-- sarah-- a family friend who knew of these things said, "dude, you can't be fong because your legal name here is torres, all right?" >> hinojosa: oh! >> although now i like the sound of "tor-rez." it's a... i'm going to go with that now from now on at this late stage in life. "and you cannot be 'torres' because your real, god-given name is-- buddah-given name-- is 'fong,' so what are you going to do?" and my dad probably shrugged his shoulders and the guy said, "how about both of them? you know, have your bases covered." and so fong-torres. it could've been torres-fong or
something else, but that's how they chose to do it, and then later on as we came along and learned english, we punctuated it with a little hyphen. for a long time, people thought my middle name was fong and last name torres. very confusing, but it's a story. >> hinojosa: all right, so when i was thinking about this interview, i was like, "well, what is rock and roll, you know? and if you kind of look at rock and roll in a historical concept within the uted stateswhat is the lasting lesson of rock and roll?" then i was, "well, and is there a lasting lesson of hip hop? and is there a lasting lesson of something else that is yet to come?" when... this is what you do. what do you see? >> the lasting lesson is "express yourself." that's basically it. from generation to generation, whether it was sinatra and the bobby socks years, or rudy valley before him, or elvis presley on ed sullivan, every generation comes along, and young people need to be able to speak for themselves; to communicate to each other in a language that they can actually have as their own if that's
possible. there's are always going to be that divide between young people and those who are their adult supervisors, whatever. and so rock and roll is one way to do that, and rock and roll is being redefined every minute. and that's why hip hop can be put right into the same category as rock and roll. it is the voice of rebellion, of revolt, of "our own thing, and leave us alone." >> hinojosa: so when you look at what might come next, what are you thinking about? >> oh, who knows, you know? it can be something electronic, it can go right back to acoustic-- it's just whatever a community of kids... >> hinojosa: it could go completely simple also? it could be like... >> sure. >> hinojosa: ...the opposite of electronic? >> yeah, and it can stay fashionalized the way it has been for 30 years now. you know, ever since rock "matured" so called, and there became to be branches of rock and roll-- from acoustic singer/songwriters and folkies to punk rockers, to the corporate rockers, to the... >> hinojosa: no, wait, wait.
corporate? >> yes, corporate. well, in the 1970's, yeah. rock and roll became such a big industry. >> hinojosa: can you name me a corporate... >> well, they were considered to be artists like kansas and journey. >> hinojosa: yeah, i remember those. >> there music was considerably more thought-out, formulaic, and manufactured, and less soulful, less antiestablishment, like the punk people. certainly almost as smooth as disco, which was another branch that was coming forth in the mid-1970's. >> hinojosa: can't deny; i was there. >> and disco is still here, you see? it never goes away. none of the forms ever really disappears. >> hinojosa: all right, so finally, ben, what needs to happen with american music? >> well, nothing needs to happen with it. it would be nice if it stayed that there's always room for roots music, and there's always a... an open ear for a wide, global kind of music. and that it's not just go the way of trends. not just boy bands and electronic stuff and lip-synched stuff; that there's always reality involved.
and given the way americans are and musicians around the world, that will always be the case. no matter how manufactured things get, there's somebody in a basement just doing it on her own or his own. >> hinojosa: ben fong-torres, thank you for all of your words of wisdom. >> thank you, maria. >> hinojosa: a pleasure. continue the conversation at wgbh.org/oneonone. captioned by media access group at wgbh access.wgbh.org